Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yet More on 111th Congress Mistakes

What exactly could Barack Obama have done better in 2009-2010? I wrote over at Greg's place yesterday about the dangers of looking only from that point of view; it's apt to miss lots of good calls that could have gone bad. It also tends to place blame on the president for not successfully finding his way around obstacles, rather than blaming the people who were putting up obstacles in the first place: if you think a larger stimulus was called for, your real beef is with Republicans who opposed any stimulus, and then with swing Democrats who wouldn't vote for more, not with Obama. And it's always important to resist the idea that presidents could really get whatever they want and other magical thinking about the presidency.

So much for the throat clearing. Keeping all that in mind, I do think that there were two major strategic options open to Obama that he didn't take:

1. Increased tempo in Congress. Overall, the 111th Congress was, liberal disappointments notwithstanding, highly productive. Nevertheless, they were at various times pressed for floor time to get everything done that they had the votes for – making GOP stalling a good tactic. What could Obama have done? Congress basically used a normal schedule in 2009-2010, taking the usual recesses and the usual long weekends, allowing Members time to work their districts. Had Obama insisted, I think there’s a good chance that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi would have switched to an economic emergency schedule, at least during 2009, thereby increasing House and Senate floor time and therefore legislative capacity.

2. Fight harder against GOP filibusters. I don’t think it’s realistic to say that Obama could have persuaded Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster during the 111th Congress. However, I’m not sure they had to accept the unprecedented use of the filibuster, either. Had Democrats, perhaps including the president, spoken out strongly when Mitch McConnell talked about a “60 vote Senate” immediately after the 2008 election, and started threatening filibuster reform early on, I don’t think they would have been able to return to a pre-1993 situation in which filibusters were rare, but I do think it’s possible that they could have prevented the full, 100%, filibuster-everything Senate that they got.

Had the White House chosen those paths, I don't really think it changes any votes -- you still don't get a major climate bill, and certainly not a major immigration bill. The voters were not there. Republicans still filibuster a lot of stuff, so 60 are needed to pass big things. But I don't think it was inevitable that 60 votes were needed for District Judges and minimally controversial executive branch nominees, and for run-of-the-mill, ordinary legislation. And if that had been the case, I'd think that the 111th would have been a fair amount more productive.

This discussion started with a focus on economic policy...I wonder about two things. First, would a double-time tempo have enabled Dodd-Frank to pass rapidly, in spring 2009? Second, could the administration have devised a state and local government fix that was revenue-neutral and automatic over the long run, and also passed it in spring 2009? On the one hand, Obama was quite popular at that point, and both of those bills would be easy to sell as directly responsive to the economic crisis. On the other, a faster tempo would certainly have produced complaints from the Republicans even faster than we got them, and if Obama had lost Arlen Specter and, perhaps, Ben Nelson...well, then maybe everything falls apart, including any stimulus bill at all. In other words, it wasn't risk-free.

I suspect that the biggest mistakes of the administration were within the executive branch, not in Congress (although getting closer to fully staffed a lot quicker might have helped). But if you're looking for "what could Obama have done," I think those are the two legislative strategies that were plausible and might well have made a positive difference.


  1. Dear Jonathan, Thanks very much for a realistic assessment of the situation, which gives the impression that you do actually care about outcomes, and not just process!

    I still intend to vote for Obama, as I am terrified of the alternatives, yet can we begin to advance an argument that Obama, in his well-meaning and rationalistic way, has nevertheless made and stuck to an ideological vision of "bipartisanship" and "being above the fray," an ideological vision which is not supported by the facts? And further, an ideological vision which has not succeeded in its apparent strategic goal of winning the votes and support of centrists and independents?

  2. The things he could have done better are mostly in the foreign policy arena because that is where the President has more freedom of movement. He could have closed Guantanamo if he had moved more quickly. He should have done more to root out the torturers still in government service.

  3. William Ockham,

    I suspect the president's freedom of action in foreign affairs is a bit overblown. The notion, though frequently repeated, has always struck me as too Washington-centric. People assume that foreign policy is easier because the president doesn't have to deal constantly with Congress, but they tend to overlook the fact that he has to deal with the rest of the world, which can also be obstructive.

    Regarding the torturers--apart from the facts that (a) the August 2002 Justice Department memo gave legal cover to just about everyone except the lawyers who wrote it and (b) Congress granted immunity to those directly involved through the War Commissions Act of 2006--any attempt to prosecute or even investigate the interrogators (or Bybee or Yoo, for that matter) would have unleashed a torrent of accusations that Obama was persecuting heros and undermining security. Nothing else would have been accomplished, and Obama had a full agenda. Even the notion of investigating those who exceeded the Bybee memo has brought some accusations, and just look at the reaction to something as innocuous as moving the detainees to a secure facility on the mainland. (Although, frankly, the issue from the beginning should have been adherence to standard rules such as the Geneva Conventions, not the detainees' location in Guantanamo.)

  4. Meh.

    I think "Win the Future" was a year too late. Frame the stimulus as a massive investment in infrastructure and don't worry about shovel ready. AFter all, Kenysian interventions are supposed to be wasteful but a trillion dollars is a really big big number. Why didn't we borrow a trillion dollar and invest in the future, rather than just repave every highway in America?*

    Correct about attack on filibuster. JB has made many good points there.

    dispanding OFA and putting Tim Kaine in charge of the DNC. Make sure you don't have another option. Threatening to get a primary challenge against a Ben Nelson might stir the pot.

    Holding bank executive liable for their bad behavior. Fire some more GM executives and hang them outside Lafayette Square. Hell, fire some union heads to be even-handed.

    * chevy volt, basically, DOE programs. It is still attacked but could be better.

  5. Threatening to get a primary challenge against a Ben Nelson might stir the pot.

    Worked a treat in Arkansas.


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